Zolo.ca is one of the fastest growing national real estate websites, having landed in several provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and more recently, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. By the end of 2017 Zolo can cross Quebec off the list as well.
The site reportedly gets 150,000 listings a month and more than 4 million unique visitors. Zolo Realty Brokerage is a full-service brokerage with residential, commercial and mortgage divisions and access to real-time data analytics.
Mustafa Abbasi, Zolo’s president and broker of record, recently sat down with Toronto Storeys to tell us what makes Zolo different from all of the real estate websites out there, and shared advice for those looking to work with a realtor. He offers an honest assessment of Toronto’s real estate market.
How did you get into real estate and what initially attracted you to it?
I was working a corporate job at American Express and I was finding that it was really getting boring for me. I needed a new challenge in my life. I needed something where I was out there meeting new people. At that time, my family was looking at properties and we had our family realtor. I was looking at the way he was conducting himself, as well as the lifestyle and the job itself and I said, “Wow, I could see myself doing this.” I decided to do the courses and jump into real estate and I have had tremendous success. It has just been a great industry. You’re always doing something different and meeting new people.
Can you explain Zolo’s model and what makes it different from other real estate firms?
The model serves two purposes. There’s thousands of websites but what makes Zolo different is it really focuses on the consumer experience. The first thing is the ease-of-use and the sheer number of listings on the website, but the second thing is for our realtors it’s great because we get over 4 million visitors to our site per month. So we get a lot of leads and contacts from people that are interested in looking at properties and put in offers on properties. What we do is we match our realtors to visitors of our site. The actual computer does all of the assigning, so if you are a consumer in Richmond Hill, you will automatically get assigned to an area specialist who works in Richmond Hill based on your search. They will be your realtor and answer any questions you have. You will be able to talk to them in real time as well. It’s a win for consumers because they get information the same time realtors get information and it’s a win for realtors because we take care of the prospecting side of the business.
Do you think your model is the future of real estate?
Absolutely. We have a proprietary (customer relationship management system) that manages all the contacts and leads that come in. It’s very intuitive. You can only imagine that one or two contacts that come in are easy to manage on Excel or something. This is how traditional real estate has been. Our CRM manages all the contacts and takes it one step further. It’s very intuitive in that it sees what consumers are looking at, if they’re looking at a specific area our CRM will push new listings and price changes to them. We built our CRM in-house and it allows our realtors to focus on the relationship with their clients rather than the annoying parts of the business like tracking whether you’ve sent a lead for a property or not. This can all be focused on by the CRM and our realtors can focus on the most important part of the business.
What is it like to use your site as a consumer?
You can go to Zolo.ca or you can download our app, which is the most popular MLS app on the web in Canada. When you log on to Zolo.ca there’s a search box and you can type in any location you want. The site is organized by the most recent listings to hit the MLS at the top with the later listings at the bottom. You could organize it however you want including by least expensive to most expensive and you don’t have to login to see listings. However some listings require you to login and it’s free to sign up. Then, after you login, you get assigned to a realtor. You’ll be able to see 95 per cent of what are realtors see. We believe empowering consumers with information doesn’t take away from the realtor’s job. I don’t think it discredits the realtors. We’ve actually seen that if you give information to consumers they’re more likely to want to work with you because it’s an open, transparent and good way to start the relationship.
How do your realtors maintain a personal touch with their clients and not lose anything to the technology?
In our training with our realtors the one thing that we always talk about is our response time. If someone makes a contact request it’s a mandatory rule that we pick up the phone if we’re not busy. One challenge in this industry is the realtors don’t follow up or they don’t pick up the phone and they’re just generally hard to get a hold of. We saw this as a serious issue in the industry. Even when myself and other realtors try to reach out to other realtors you don’t always get them to be very responsive. We want to be very responsive. We asked our guys that from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. they pick up the phone. If they can’t, we ask that they phone the consumer back within five minutes of the consumer leaving a message. They must acknowledge that they got the client’s question, they are looking into it and they will get back to them. The consumer also gets a text message letting them know that their query has been received. Our realtors are also measured through their customer service so we have a rating system similar to Uber or Airbnb. Through this feedback we are able to react to a problem before it becomes a major issue.
What do you think are some of the challenges the Toronto real estate market still has?
Since 2000, the market has just gone up, so there should have been a correction seven years ago. Everybody is very used to this really hot market. Now that there is a little bit of a correction, people are panicking. I’m not sure if it was the implementation of those 16 steps or if it was the fear of those 16 steps that has caused negative news that has changed the market a little bit. We are seeing a shift where we’re seeing multiple listings. However, I think that might actually be a good thing for the real estate market long term. I do think there’s tremendous opportunity in Toronto and the GTA. There are problems with certain municipalities in terms of getting building permits. Builders have mentioned that they want to build, but they have so many restrictions. It’s a long and frustrating process. There’s lots of places where you can start building out in the suburbs. Another challenge is a lot of these suburbs are relying on Toronto and I don’t think that necessarily has to be the focus. Mississauga is its own city. It doesn’t really rely on Toronto and some of the others suburbs can start doing that as well. There’s also a public transit issue. I would love to take public transit, but where I’m located I can’t.
What advice do you usually give to people who want to work with a realtor?
The first thing you want to ask a realtor before you do anything is, “Are you full time?” Zolo realtors have to be full time. This is the largest transaction a consumer will do in their lifetime and to treat that as part time is not fair to the consumer, the realtor or anybody. I do believe in area specialty, so ask, “What areas do you work in?” and find out if that area is the area you are looking in. Area specialists know the market, not just statistics but things that are outside that data such as schools and first-hand experience with neighbourhoods. The other thing I would ask for is testimonials. “What do some of your other clients say about you?” It’s not really about experience, it’s about how determined and dedicated they are to helping you sell your property or buy your property.